Congress established our national motto – “In God We Trust” – in 1956, although it first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. Legal challenges to its constitutionality at the federal level have frequently been brushed aside by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
But no one had ever challenged the constitutionality of state laws requiring the motto’s posting in public schools, which Tennessee and 14 other states have on their books.
Until now. A father of a young girl entering kindergarten at a public charter school in Nashville, Tennessee, objected to the national motto displayed in the entryway of the school and sued. He argued he was bringing up his daughter to be non-religious, and the motto’s presence was a religious statement that violated her constitutional rights.
The good news, however, is United States District Judge Aleta A. Trauger considered and rejected that father’s challenge to Tennessee’s 2018 law, the “National Motto in the Classroom Act.” The law requires local public schools to display the motto in “a prominent location,” defined as “a school entryway, cafeteria, or common area where students are likely to see the national motto display.”
In granting judgment in favor of the school and other state defendants, Trauger first pointed out that the motto has been challenged in other contexts and been upheld under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from establishing a religion.
“Indeed, although the question of its being posted in schools has not otherwise been considered, the Supreme Court and courts of appeal have consistently held that displaying the national motto on the nation’s currency and coins and elsewhere does not violate the Establishment Clause,” Trauger wrote.
Even though the national motto includes the word “God,” that does not make the national motto a religious statement, the judge continued.
“The entire display in which the poster of the national motto is situated itself contains no religious symbolism or references and, as such, reflects no intention on the part of the School Defendants to establish or promote a religion,” Trauger wrote. “Even without consideration of the new plaque explaining why the national motto is posted, the display as originally viewed by the plaintiff does not have the effect of promoting a particular religion; it is not coercive; and it does not involve any excessive entanglement of a government institution and religion.
“The display adopted by the School Defendants to comply with state law requiring the posting of the national motto, as viewed by the plaintiff on her first day of school, does not violate the Establishment Clause.”
“In God We Trust” serves an important national interest, according to the judge.
“The national motto is a ‘symbol of common identity.’”
That common identity also goes back to our national anthem – The Star-Spangled Banner – written by Francis Scott Key on the morning after the British naval bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in September 1814. Although we’re not used to singing all its verses, look carefully at the final stanza:
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Kudos to the state legislature of Tennessee for including the national motto in the education of the children of that state, and to Judge Trauger for recognizing and protecting the motto’s rich heritage.
The case is JLF v. Tennessee State Board of Education.
Photo from Shutterstock.